Swan Song / Cigno Canzone

During my final year of undergraduate study, I wrote a paper for a focused seminar on Geoffrey Chaucer, during which I discovered a soon-to-be treasured story from his Canterbury Tales, The Second Nun’s Tale.

That year was about transformation, to be sure. When it began, I switched my major from molecular and cellular biology to English literature, thereby closing the book on three years of intensive science and mathematics. Embracing my revised course list, which suddenly filled my life with rich stories, term papers, essay tests, and library research, that year was also about reintroducing myself to an old love: writing.

Ultimately, my decision to change majors made for a longer road compared what to my former peers found after college; many went to med school and became doctors while others became genetic researchers and forensic scientists straight away. For me, becoming a writer has taken 14 years to develop over a very winding path.

Design school came a few years after university, from which was born the world of marketing architecture, engineering and construction services. For my entire career, I’ve struggled with the dichotomy of having jobs that paid well but did not feed me creatively, or suffering for my craft. Until I came to Civita, the two worlds never had the opportunity to meet.

Though it wasn’t in my plan, I began this road by working for a real estate development firm right out of college. Their young VP liked the fact that I was a writer and editor for The University of Arizona Daily Wildcat; I remember him saying that he hired me because, “If you are a good writer, you can do anything.”

I thought of Jordan –and Sigmund Eisner, my beloved Chaucer professor– as I entered the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere today, which is located on the site of the house in which she lived in the third century AD. As I neared her tribute sculpture, two words from my term paper on The Second Nun’s Tale, which captures the story of Santa Cecilia, sounded in my mind: sassy superheroine.

Legend has it that, when Cecilia’s body was disinterred in 1599, it was completely intact, including the slash wounds on her neck, which didn’t kill her instantly but from which she bled to death after three days. The patron saint of music, Santa Cecilia reportedly sang hymns even after she was attacked with axes by Emperor Severus’ men — first, they attempted to suffocate her in her bathhouse, then they tried to cut off her head– but her devotion to a greater idea allowed her to persist in spite of such brutality.

When I contrast who I was in college when she and I first met –what I believed in, my lack of experience in the world, and how separately I held my true self– with the woman I am now, I can see no more fitting end to this fellowship journey than at Santa Cecilia’s feet. She and I began a path together that was based purely on my love of literature, writing, and stories that rang true. Like the bible or ancient mythology, even if the Canterbury Tales speak only in metaphor, the idea of a person standing against all odds in order to say what she believes is true is something that we all hope we’re capable of accomplishing.

It is with a similar sense of faith that our two lives have converged once again, only this time I feel more prepared for our meeting. By receiving the NIAUSI fellowship, I’ve been able to make flesh what was once a ghost of a dream: writing a book that was real and true.

I’ve scoured Rome for the past few days looking for a sign, and this is the one I choose to take. When looking on the most elegant marble sculpture of a woman in swooned repose, a deep gash on her neck as proof of her devotion to what was real and true in her life, I thought to myself: this is not an ending, but a beginning.

It’s fitting that the final sight I visited was dedicated to a woman who spoke her mind to the last — even after the guards attempted to silence her in violent ways. There are things in life that we’re all afraid to say; sometimes we get punished for saying them. Yet, the price of not saying how we feel –what is real, what is true– is deeper, I think; not just for the person speaking the words, but for those who might have benefitted from hearing them. Rather than an upfront cost of being real and true, the price of leaving things unsaid seems to double and triple over every year.

In somma, perhaps the best way to pause –yet again– is in knowing that I’ll pick up this story when I return to Seattle. This fellowship journey is one chapter –a grand chapter and a marvelous adventure, to be sure– but what I ultimately take from it is that this is only the beginning.

There will be more chapters, and what they hold will be real and true. Most importantly –no matter what happens– I’ll never lose faith in the importance of sharing stories and sharing tables…and in a voice that I know can sing, in spite of adversity.

Ci vediamo a presto…we’ll see each other soon.

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